The strange and very Albertan history of the Cadillac Ranch

For nearly 40 years, learning this one weird line dance has been a fact of life for many Canadians. The song it’s based on was never a hit, so how’d it become an Alberta thing? Open up your engines, let 'em roar. We're tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur.
Illustrated by Ben Shannon

In a video captured somewhere in Canada, most likely Calgary, a crowd is hopping and hollering to a country song called Cadillac Ranch. As the camera pans above the mob, you can hear them shouting along with the man on the microphone. He’s jumping in time with the throng, standing at the centre of the pit. And though a floppy black cowboy hat is hiding his face, it’s obvious who’s singing. That’s country star Brett Kissel, a three-time Juno winner whose brand is so Alberta that he’s the voice of a provincial tourism campaign.

Kissel posted that concert footage in the summer of 2022, and it’s a scene that probably isn’t all that unusual for a Canadian country hitmaker, one playing his home province at that. But if you’re a fan of Kissel’s from Newfoundland or Nebraska — or anywhere that isn’t Western Canada — the title of his YouTube post might throw you. It’s a question for those in the know: “Who learned the Cadillac Ranch line dance in school?”

If you answered “not me,” Kissel’s question probably leaves you asking another one. Namely, what is it? What is the “Cadillac Ranch”?

In certain circles, the Cadillac Ranch is how to tell someone you’re from Alberta without telling them you’re from Alberta. It’s TikTok duets between strangers; dashcam video of bros tapping their heels in a snowy Jasper parking lot; ringette teams from Airdrie and Hinton dancing on ice because the refs didn’t show on time. Or, to put a finer point on it, it’s a line dance that every Albertan seems to know somehow.


The Airdrie U16B Smash Ringette team found a fun way to pass time while waiting for the refs! (Airdrie is the team in the back).

♬ Beep sound Self-regulation sound (about 3 seconds)(868134) - amuri

It doesn’t matter if those Albertans can tell the difference between a diamond touch and a dorothy. (Those are dance steps, by the way — footwork you can bet Kissel’s audience would have been running through if they weren’t smushed together mosh pit–style.) It doesn’t matter if they listen to country music, either.

For nearly 40 years now, learning the steps to this one weird dance has been a fact of life in the province — and meanwhile, folks from other parts of the country have probably never heard of it. So how did it become a part of Albertan culture, insomuch as anything can be?

You might be Albertan if…

I happen to know the Cadillac Ranch. An Alberta childhood is my excuse, and though it’s been 17 years since I left the dusty sprawl of the Edmonton suburbs — more time than I spent growing up there — if you press play on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version of the song, my feet will snap together on reflex, heels fanning out in time to the first four beats.

The subsequent steps are just as basic: a combination of easy heel-toe touches, for the most part, alternating from right to left, then front to back.

How to do the Cadillac Ranch! (Illustrated by Ben Shannon)

Even if you fudge the trickiest section — a quarter turn before the grapevine — the 4/4 beat doesn’t plod much faster than walking speed. Anyone on two feet can jump back in when the sequence repeats, even a klutzy eight-year-old.

I speak from experience. If I had to guess, I would have learned the Cadillac Ranch in Grade 4 gym or music class — maybe both. That same year, my mom let my sister and me sign up for an after-school activity at the rec centre down the street. It was a rare treat, and being anxious children, we chose lessons that would prepare us for our futures as serious citizens of the world. She learned to cook. As for me, classroom overexposure to Cadillac Ranch left me with a seriously distorted impression of adult life. I signed up for line dancing … and all these years later, I’ve yet to master that quarter turn before the grapevine.

You play the Cadillac Ranch at about 10 p.m. and you just watch the dance floor get flooded. Whether it be a live band or a DJ, it’s the song of the night.Brett KisselMusician

Kissel, who’s 32, remembers learning the Cadillac Ranch in phys ed. The singer went to school in St. Paul, a town roughly two hours northeast of Edmonton. But he’d memorized the steps and music before the Cadillac Ranch was one of his class requirements. “I mean, it was played at every wedding,” says Kissel. “I’ve got such a big family with endless cousins. You play the Cadillac Ranch at about 10 p.m. and you just watch the dance floor get flooded. Whether it be a live band or a DJ, it’s the song of the night.”

As a teen, he’d get gigs playing weddings himself. Cadillac Ranch was always part of his set, and he still plays it now. A straightforward version of the country-rock stomper even appears on his record, South Album, which arrived in late January.

@agalcalledmel #duet with @kingfabbs I moved to the maritimes over a decade ago now, but I still vividly remember this song and dance #albertabornandraised #canadiancheck #momsoftiktok #country #alttiktok #fyp #cadillacranch ♬ Cadillac Ranch - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

When he plays Cadillac Ranch outside of Alberta — in the Maritimes, Quebec, Italy, you name it — people know it well enough, but in Kissel’s observation, it’s less likely those audiences will dance along. The reception in Alberta, he says, is just different — although other western audiences, like those in Saskatchewan, are plenty enthusiastic. In Alberta, “it definitely gets a bigger reaction — or a more dependable reaction,” says Kissel. “Perfect example: I played it at Cowboys at the Calgary Stampede,” he says, referring to a spot that’s ground zero for the Stampede’s party scene.

“Seventy-five hundred people. Sold out. And I bet you 7,400 of them were dancing. It was just beautiful.”

The hit record that was never actually a hit

How do you get thousands of strangers itching to do a synchronized dance routine on a summer night in Calgary? Before we can even begin to unpack that question, you should probably know more about the phenomenon that Kissel considers a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. That story begins in the 1980s, somewhere that sure isn’t an Alberta hall wedding in the shadow of the world’s largest perogy.

Let’s start with the song. It began as a Bruce Springsteen tune, originally written by the rock legend for his 1980 recording, The River. That double album went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was his first to top the chart, although Cadillac Ranch, a sort of rockabilly memento mori, was never officially released as a North American single.

The version of note — at least for the purposes of this story — doesn’t arrive until 1984, when veteran country-rock act the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band covered Cadillac Ranch for their album Plain Dirt Fashion. The American band, which was founded in California in 1966, has established a uniquely fervent fanbase in western Canada over their extensive career. Earlier this spring, they mounted a Canadian tour, playing seven cities between March 31 and April 7 — all within the Prairie provinces. Maybe that’s enough to explain the Cadillac Ranch phenomenon — but more on that later.

Plain Dirt Fashion would eventually rise to No. 5 on RPM’s Canadian country albums chart, but like the Springsteen cut, their cover of Cadillac Ranch wasn’t pushed as an official single, and it never even surfaced on the charts. Yet somehow, it’s a radio staple in Alberta, still being played on country stations in the province. In fact, it’s one of the most requested tracks at CFWE Edmonton and CJWE Calgary, says Jeremy Harpe, director of radio for the stations’ parent company, Windspeaker Radio. Even its classic rock format, 89.3 the Raven, keeps the original Springsteen song in rotation.

Alberta’s love for Cadillac Ranch is a pop-culture mystery that delights Jackie Rae Greening. An inductee of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, Greening is the program director at CFCW, an Edmonton-area country radio station that’s been playing the song for decades. “I went into Billboard and there’s nothing,” says Greening, who spoke with CBC Arts in the summer of 2022. “Like, in the U.S., there was not even a spin.”

But at CFCW, Cadillac Ranch has been in rotation since the ’80s, and they’ve always played the same version: the NGDB recording off Plain Dirt Fashion.

It began with a call from a listener. When Plain Dirt Fashion came out, Edmonton bars started playing the album, and according to Greening, two songs were especially popular with locals. “Here at C-Dub, we started getting requests,” she says. “They were both obscure album cuts that became really great regional hits.” One was Face on the Cutting Room Floor. Cadillac Ranch, of course, was the other.

The ‘Urban Cowboys’ of Edmonton made it a nightclub smash

How and why Edmonton club DJs started spinning Cadillac Ranch is a whole other head-scratcher — a mystery that will, for now, remain lost at the bottom of so many rye and gingers. But Greening has a hunch, and it all ties back to what was happening in local nightlife.

Around the time Cadillac Ranch was being requested on CFCW, Edmonton was experiencing an explosion of country-western bars. Greening remembers it well. In 1980, there was only one club that catered to the country crowd: Danny Hooper’s Stockyard. By the middle of the decade, people were two-stepping and line-dancing all over, she says. If you scan old phone books from the time, you’ll see that the number of Edmonton nightclubs nearly doubled between 1979 and 1985, and just south of the Whyte Avenue party strip you can still find weekend warriors stumbling through the Cadillac Ranch at Cook County Saloon. The bar opened in 1981, and Greening says it’s the only one of those boom-time country-western venues that continues to operate.

In the early ’80s, Edmonton wasn’t the only place in the world where country-western everything was on-trend. Pearl-snap shirts and cowboy boots were clubwear, country stars like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers were crossing over onto the pop charts, and in 1980, John Travolta scored a Hollywood hit with a drama that gave a name to the craze: Urban Cowboy.

When people talk about the rise of western line dancing, the movie’s often mentioned as a sort of easy shorthand. But Keith Armbruster traces the fad back a little further. He’s the director of the Calgary Dance Stampede, an annual dance competition/convention in the city. He’s also the president of the United Country Western Dance Council (UCWDC), an organization that oversees “the largest circuit for competitive country and line dance in the world.”

“Line dancing originated with disco,” says Armbruster. Think of the Hustle, the Electric Slide. Like the Cadillac Ranch, they’re moves that are meant to be done in sync with the entire dance floor, and no partner is required.

Take a look at Saturday Night Fever, Armbruster suggests. “The biggest scenes … of John Travolta dancing were all him solo. And that’s basically line dancing.”

For Urban Cowboy, Travolta traded his Saturday Night Fever leisure suit for a tight pair of Wranglers, and in 1980, the public was equally fickle. At the same time, club owners were looking for a new draw as the disco era faded out. “The bars slowly turned into country bars,” says Armbruster, and the sort of dancing you might have seen at a honky-tonk in Texas infiltrated nightlife everywhere.

Whatever you call it, the dance rolled across the Prairies ‘like thunder’

Line dancing certainly would have been happening in Alberta around the time of Urban Cowboy. In a 1991 article for the Red Deer Advocate, a dance instructor named Kathy Koebel described the moment that turned her on to the trend. It happened in Edmonton, she explained, sometime in the early ’80s. Koebel had found herself at a “huge rodeo club dance,” the paper reported. “There were 200 people on the dance floor doing Slap Leather. It was like thunder,” she said.

The dance Koebel saw, Slap Leather, is often uttered in the same breath as Cadillac Ranch, and depending on who you talk to, the dances are interchangeable. In that previously mentioned article, the reporter describes dancers at a Red Deer bar with an all-too-perfect name: Cadillac Jack’s. They warm up for the night by doing Slap Leather, “a line dance often performed to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s boot-stomping hit Cadillac Ranch.”

If you’re going to be picky about it, the dances are distinct. Says Armbruster: “There’s some similarities in the footwork, so I think some people get it mixed up, just over the generations.… The reason why it’s called Slap Leather is you actually kind of slap the sides of your boots. Where in Cadillac Ranch, you don’t do that.”

Or maybe you do — depending on when and where you learned it. Line dances spread organically, after all, and that’s how Albertans would have learned the Cadillac Ranch way back in the ’80s: person to person, dance floor to dance floor, city to city.

If the song is hugely popular, then of course everybody’s going to want to dance to it.Keith ArmbrusterDirector of the Calgary Dance Stampede

In his travels with the UCWDC, Armbruster’s seen people do the Cadillac Ranch all over North America, but there seems to be something distinct about its popularity in Western Canada. “If you say ‘Cadillac Ranch,’ especially around Alberta, everybody knows it,” he says.

“You can pretty much type in any country song nowadays and type the words ‘line dance’ after it, and somebody somewhere … has created a dance to it,” says Armbruster. But for steps to catch on en masse, like they did with the Cadillac Ranch, you’ve got to have a few magic ingredients in the mix. The sequence should be unique, but simple enough to copy. And more than anything else, the music’s got to be irresistible. Says Armbruster: “If the song is hugely popular, then of course everybody’s going to want to dance to it.”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: ‘We don’t see it in the States at all’

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Illustrated by Ben Shannon)

But as you’ll recall, Cadillac Ranch was never a hit. At best, it found a sort of niche success on western Canadian radio, something the band itself has acknowledged over the years. In 2018, Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band told the Prince George Citizen that Cadillac Ranch and Face on the Cutting Room Floor (the same tunes CFCW was getting requests for back in the ’80s) were game-changers in the Canadian market. “[They] became these kind of underground hits in Canada, and people still respond to them like they were huge,” he said at the time.

As for the dance craze? It’s baffled the Dirt Band for nearly 40 years. Bob Carpenter, the group’s keyboardist, spoke with CBC Arts on the eve of the NGDB’s 2023 spring tour of Canada. And two days before launching the trip in Calgary, Carpenter said that Cadillac Ranch would absolutely be on their setlist. “We don’t play it everywhere … but we certainly will be playing it at every show up in Canada.”

It’s been that way since the ’80s, he says, and even back then, the band couldn’t explain why Albertan audiences responded to the song the way they did. “There was no advertising dollars put into anything we ever did in Canada,” says Carpenter. “Who knows why things go viral? Who knows? People bought the album, I guess. Maybe they took it home, and that was the only thing on the album they could dance to.”

"We thought it was amazing ... and we wondered, 'How did this happen?'"Bob CarpenterNitty Gritty Dirt Band keyboardist

According to Carpenter, Canadian fans are the only folks who line dance to Cadillac Ranch at shows. “I mean, we don’t see it in the States at all,” Carpenter tells CBC Arts — and the song hits hardest when they play it in the Canadian Rocky Mountain areas and Alberta.

He remembers the first time he saw the Cadillac Ranch break out at a concert. The band was playing a club somewhere in Western Canada — “probably about a year after that Plain Dirt Fashion album came out.” The passage of time has blurred the exact time and place, but Carpenter still remembers how he reacted. “We thought it was amazing,” he says, laughing at the memory. “It was totally cool. And we wondered, ‘How did this happen?’”

Carpenter still doesn’t have an answer. The NGDB and its management never promoted the dance, but by the early ’90s, the band would have been well familiar with the phenomenon. Their 1991 concert album, Live Two Five, was actually recorded in Alberta at Red Deer College (now Red Deer Polytechnic), a location suggested by their Lethbridge-based promoter, Ron Sakamoto. “There was something particularly rabid about our following in Alberta,” said the band’s Jeff Hanna in the summer of 2018, speaking with Postmedia News about the factors that led them to Red Deer with producer T Bone Burnett in tow. For the taping, the NGDB ran through Cadillac Ranch more than once, according to the Edmonton Journal’s coverage of the show. Every time, it got the audience of 500 “out of its chairs.”

Was the crowd line dancing that night? “It’s hard to do a line dance in a theatre with seats!” says Carpenter with a laugh, remembering that performance, but he imagines there must have been a few folks in the aisles.

‘Cowboys don’t line dance’

In old news articles like that story about Live Two Five’s recording, you’ll occasionally find “Cadillac Ranch” referenced with a hint of excitement or a sort of winking regional pride. In 2004, an Alberta Conservative MLA pitched the creation of an official provincial dance. One columnist for the Edmonton Journal responded to the news with this proposition: “open legislature sessions with the members line dancing to the tune ‘Cadillac Ranch.’”

The writer wasn’t serious, but I wonder how many MLAs would have actually known the steps. Today, Albertans all over the province know the Cadillac Ranch, but in 1997, the Calgary Herald ran a story with the headline: “End of the line dancer.” According to a cast of local scenesters, the craze had finally run its course. “Cowboys don’t line dance,” reads one incredible quote — a mantra credited to a dance instructor at Ranchman’s Cookhouse & Dancehall, a Stampede hotspot that’s been packing in country fans since 1972.

According to the Herald, the only people still interested in line dancing were up in Edmonton. Pairs dancing, like the two-step, was the thing to do in highfalutin Calgary.

Bearing in mind the age-old Battle of Alberta, it’s hard to say whether the story was reporting fact or just slamming a rival city, but whatever the case may be, the article includes another detail worth mentioning here, a vision of the future that’s proven eerily accurate. The paper predicted the Cadillac Ranch would return to Calgary — “because line dancing has been turning up as part of high-school gym classes.”

Is the Cadillac Ranch in the Alberta curriculum?

Jodi Harding-Kuriger is an instructor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton where she teaches courses on the province’s phys ed curriculum, and before that, she spent more than 15 years as a teacher in Alberta schools, leading classes from kindergarten to Grade 12. In her career, she’s introduced the Cadillac Ranch to students of all ages. “By high school, I don’t usually need to teach them the steps because they’ve probably done it several times throughout their K to 9 years,” she says, “but they always like to review it and give it a whirl.” She even learned it in school herself, back in the 1990s.

But is the Cadillac Ranch truly a part of the Alberta curriculum? From Reddit threads to TikTok gags, it’s a recurring refrain. “Schools didn’t teach us anything about managing our money,” starts one joke by Edmonton standup comedian Adam Blank. “They were too busy teaching us the important stuff, like how to dance to Cadillac Ranch.”

Alberta’s not the only place where line dancing is taught as a life skill. Australians, for example, have the Nutbush — steps traditionally paired with Ike and Tina Turner’s Nutbush City Limits. Like the Cadillac Ranch, generations of Aussie children have learned the Nutbush in gym class. In 2018, more than 1,700 people — presumably products of the nation’s public schools — gathered at a music festival in Queensland to do it all together, setting the Guinness World Record for such a thing.

But the Nutbush isn’t an official part of any Australian curriculum. And according to Harding-Kuriger, the same goes for the Cadillac Ranch. It’s not a mandated requirement, she explains — busting the dominant theory among Albertan Redditors.

Nevertheless, it’s become an “Albertan phenomenon,” she says. The dance is mentioned on teacher worksheets like this approved resource that’s available on the Ministry of Education’s website. Documents like that one guide teachers when they’re crafting their lesson plans, and dance, Harding-Kuriger explains, is a subject that is indeed part of the provincial curriculum.

Was the NGDB aware that Cadillac Ranch is often taught in Alberta schools? Carpenter tells CBC Arts that he’s known about it for years. “We’ve actually gone into some of the schools and got with the kids and they sang Fishin’ in the Dark,” he says. Carpenter doesn’t mention anyone specifically dancing to Cadillac Ranch, but he can see its appeal among teachers and students. “What a wonderful sort of innocent way of having kids get their recreational hours,” he says.

Maybe that’s why the Cadillac Ranch has persisted in schools. Speaking from her experience, Harding-Kuriger says the dance is usually popular with students, and she recommends it to her student teachers at the U of A … some of whom don’t know it already, depending on where they grew up.

“When I’m teaching it to students, I ask them, ‘How many of you know this?’” The Albertans know it so well they could dance it in reverse. But students from elsewhere? “They don’t seem to express the same familiarity.”

Discovering that regional gap in knowledge has been surprising to Harding-Kuriger. Like me, she imagined the Cadillac Ranch was just an ordinary part of the ’90s-kid experience — something every Canadian did in gym class along with Jump Rope for Heart and the Canada Fitness Test. She laughs when she remembers a story about a friend of hers from out of province, a new neighbour who’d arrived in Alberta from the Maritimes. The two of them hit the Cook County Saloon one night, and at some point in the evening, the room jumped up to do the Cadillac Ranch. Her East Coast pal was dumbfounded. “She said to me, ‘Was that a flash mob?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s like a Friday or Saturday night at a country bar in Alberta.’”

It’s not just Alberta’s gym teachers who are passing the Cadillac Ranch from one generation to the next. Armbruster suspects the Calgary Stampede is partly responsible for how the dance has infiltrated Albertan culture. “If you’re going to Stampede, you have to know Cadillac Ranch,” says Armbruster, and when the festivities kick off every summer, he’s always busy teaching lessons — even though the Stampede organization itself has a squad of volunteer dance instructors. For nearly 20 years, they’ve been teaching the Cadillac Ranch to longtime locals, newcomers and tourists alike.

Stampede’s official ‘western welcome’

Neville Headley is a former chair of the Calgary Stampede Promotion Committee, a sort of city welcome wagon that makes appearances at public events all year. Think community barbecues, team-building workshops, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, you name it. Since 2005, they’ve made line-dance lessons a part of their regular outreach activities, and when the initiative was first pitched, Headley shot up his hand to volunteer. He didn’t actually know a thing about line dancing. “Yeah, I had never done it,” Headley tells CBC Arts, laughing, but he threw himself into the assignment, becoming a regular at Ranchman’s. “I’d go there Friday night because they offered free line dance lessons.”

If you’re going to Stampede, you have to know Cadillac Ranch.Keith ArmbrusterDirector of the Calgary Dance Stampede

A dentist by day, Headley first moved to Calgary in 1970. Were Stampede crowds even line dancing back then? “Ah! That’s a great question. I would say probably not,” he tells CBC Arts. “Cadillac Ranch, the dance, hadn’t even been invented.”

But they’re definitely doing it now. If there’s music playing, and people are dancing, Cadillac Ranch is going to be played, says Headley, who still volunteers with the promotion committee. “It’s not just the country bars, but just about anywhere where there’s music.” And the folks on the floor now span generations. “When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band broke out their version back in 1984, if you took a 20-year-old at the time, they’re now 58. If they were 40 at the time, they’re 78,” he says. “At a wedding reception, for example, or a Stampede barbecue, you get all different ages there. You get people who are seniors line dancing to Cadillac Ranch with their sons and daughters … who are dancing with their kids as we’re teaching them.”

And in turn, line dancing has become “an integral part of what the promotion committee does,” he explains. The group provides entertainment on request, and their menu includes everything from trick-roping/gun-spinning/whip-cracking demos — something Headley’s been known to perform himself — to a visit from hype-man mascot Harry the Horse. Line dancing, however, is one of the committee’s most popular offerings. Most people request a tutorial — as many as 75 per cent, Headley estimates. During the 2020 lockdowns, they even made an instructional video to get the public tapping their boots from home. And Headley teaches the Cadillac Ranch at every opportunity, whether a lesson’s been requested or not. “Whenever I go to an event, I bring my music with me anyway.”

“That’s the one they want to learn,” he says, and he’s taught the Cadillac Ranch to folks of all ages and backgrounds. It’s easy and fun, he says — an element of Stampede spirit, if you will, that’s been established through sheer longevity, if nothing else.

I think that it’s just a piece of home, and that’s why it has lasted as long as it has.Jodi Harding-KurigerInstructor at the University of Alberta

Over four decades, the dance has connected Albertans all over — from the nightclub to gym class and back again. For Brett Kissel, hearing the song is pure childhood nostalgia. “Whenever I hear it on the radio, I’m brought back to the RCMP community hall in Glendon at my cousin’s wedding, doing the Cadillac Ranch with my family and friends.” For Armbruster, it’s a time machine to his youth: “late nights in the bar, having fun, packed dance floors.” Headley hears the song and thinks of all the people he’s brought together. “I just think about the joy that’s spread,” he says.

For all those reasons and more, the Cadillac Ranch will probably keep being passed down. If Harding-Kuriger had to guess, affection for the dance is what’s kept it in Alberta classrooms all this time. “There’s that emotional piece to it, where there’s so many positive memories associated with that particular piece of music and that dance,” she says. “It’s something you do with family. It’s something you do with friends at school. It’s something you do with friends and strangers at Alberta country bars — and maybe not country bars,” she says with a laugh.

“I think that it’s just a piece of home, and that’s why it has lasted as long as it has.”

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